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It has become increasingly common for shareholders to agree that disputes over the ownership or management of a business should be referred to arbitration. This often means that courts in a company’s jurisdiction of incorporation have a limited role in overseeing corporate governance matters. However, the liquidation of offshore companies is usually the prerogative of their home courts, and this can often provide an important safeguard for investors in companies that are poorly managed or used for harmful purposes when contractual provisions relating to litigation. do not offer protection.
Arbitration clauses and mandatory suspensions of legal proceedings
When arbitration clauses are used, they tend to leave no other method of settling disputes. Article 8 of the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL) The Model Law, which takes effect in the arbitration legislation of the British Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands, has the effect of automatically imposing a stay when a party initiates legal proceedings which infringe the scope of a convention arbitration.
Insolvent liquidation requests
The ability and discretion to liquidate companies remains a matter that cannot be left to an arbitral tribunal. However, when a claimant seeks to wind up a business because it cannot pay its debts, the underlying debt issues can always be arbitrable at first.
A business will generally be able to withstand insolvency liquidation if the claim (s) underlying the insolvency are disputed on substantial grounds. This principle is implemented in IVBs in accordance with the decision in Sparkasse Bregenz Bank AG v Associated Capital Corporation (BVIHCMAP2002 / 0010) (judgment delivered on June 18, 2003). This has the effect of dividing two questions: (i) whether there is a debt due and payable that the company has not paid; and (ii) if so, should the court exercise its discretion to wind up the company.
In Salford Estates (No.2) Ltd v Altomart ( EWCA 1575 Civ,  1 Ch 589), the English Court of Appeal adopted what is considered in offshore jurisdictions to be “an uncompromising approach”: while accepting that the court retains discretion whether or not to stay the liquidation claim in favor of arbitration, if the debt is the subject of a dispute and the facts giving rise to it are covered by an arbitration clause, the court should then suspend the request to allow arbitration of the question of the debt, except in “very exceptional” circumstances.
The courts in the BVI have not taken such a hard-line approach. Although the Eastern Caribbean Court of Appeal (CE CoA) approved the decision in Salford Estates (No 2) Insofar as he foresaw that the courts will always have the discretion to decide whether liquidation proceedings should be stayed, he did not consider that a dispute over an underlying claim should almost always justify a stay.
In C-Mobile Services Limited v Huawei Technologies Co. Limited (BVIHCMAP2014 / 0017), the CE considered that any dispute could be dealt with at the time when a claimant makes a legal request (i.e. before the liquidation request is issued) and at this stage, the proof a referral to arbitration would be a factor to be taken into account in exercising the discretion of the tribunal to decide whether the statutory claim should be quashed. Otherwise, a claim for liquidation would not be stayed in favor of arbitration if it could not be shown that there was a substantial dispute as to the debt.
In two decisions of the BVI Commercial Court in 2020, the court had to examine the relevance of an arbitration clause on requests for liquidation when no prior legal request had been issued – Rangecroft v Lenox International (BVIHCOM2020 / 0037) (judgment delivered on July 6, 2020) and IS Investment Fund vs. Fair Cheerful (BVIHCOM2020 / 0034) (judgment delivered on July 16, 2020).
The court ruled in both cases that the claim should be stayed or expunged so that the debt issue could be arbitrated, leading some to question whether the courts in the BVI were realigning themselves with the approach of Salford Estates (No 2).
However, in early 2021, the Commercial Court declared, in Re A Creditor v Anonymous Company Ltd (judgment delivered January 28, 2021), that the courts of the BVI do not accept the uncompromising approach favored by the English Court of Appeal in this case.
As it stands, the courts of the BVI will not stay or set aside claims for compulsory liquidation in favor of arbitration unless the Respondent demonstrates that there is an actual dispute as to the matter giving rise to insolvency (i.e. the alleged debt) arises and this issue falls under a valid arbitral award. The BVI tribunal will therefore examine the merits of any claim that the debt is in dispute before concluding that the case is stayed, which differs from the approach taken in England.
Fair and equitable liquidation requests
Fair and equitable liquidation requests can work in totally different circumstances from those presented on insolvency grounds, and the issues to be decided by the court can often be more complex.
Fair and equitable âpureâ liquidation claims (where there are no insolvency claims) are more common abroad than in England. They can be used in a variety of scenarios, including when there has been serious business mismanagement or when the business has lost its bedrock. While there can often be considerable overlap with unfair harm claims, a fair and equitable liquidation claim is made on behalf of an entire class (eg, all members or creditors) and the entire claim is centered on whether liquidators should be appointed, rather than just a form of possible relief.
In Re China CVS (Cayman Islands) Holding Corp (CICA Civil Appeal Nos 7 & 8 of 2019) the Grand Court of the Cayman has considered whether, as is the case with insolvent liquidation claims, certain questions or problems could be “dismissed” in arbitration where they exist. an applicable clause. He held that this would not be appropriate because the issues raised as justifying a winding-up are relevant to the exercise of the discretion of the tribunal to grant the relief sought and, therefore, the tribunal would not rely on the findings. of another tribunal on these matters. Such requests are therefore not divisible.
The CVS decision was recently applied to BVI in the case of Hydro Energy Holdings BV v Zhaoheng (BVI) Limited et al (BVIHCOM20201 / 0091) (judgment delivered on August 16, 2021). Although the courts of the BVI have historically made it clear that unjust prejudice claims are arbitrable and may engage the compulsory stay provisions of the arbitration law (Ennio Zanotti v Interlog Finance Corp et al (BVIHCV2009 / 0394) (judgment rendered on February 8, 2010)), the Commercial Court was clear in Hydroelectricity that the question of whether the company should be wound up on a fair and equitable basis was not arbitrable.
the Hydroelectricity case provides a good example of why a shareholder may need to seek redress from the courts of the jurisdiction of incorporation. In this case, the member alleged numerous misappropriation of group assets by the majority shareholder and de facto controller of the company. However, the arbitral tribunal and the reviewing court had not been quick enough to grant remedies that would prevent further misappropriation. BVI courts, on the other hand, were able to appoint provisional liquidators to “hold the ring” pending the determination of the underlying liquidation claim.
In cases where a member or creditor of a company suspects that management has misappropriated company assets, the appointment of liquidators can be a powerful tool as they will be ideally placed to thoroughly investigate the affairs of the company. both at the time of appointment and with respect to historical operations. Where appropriate, they can of course also bring actions against current or former directors to recover assets wrongly misappropriated, which may have the effect of ensuring that creditors are fully paid and / or shareholders receive appropriate distributions. . The ability to put in place provisional liquidators prior to liquidation is also essential to ensure that any prejudice is mitigated and can be likened to the imposition of a freezing order and the appointment of a receiver to support a claim. conventional.
When an arbitration clause does apply, it should therefore be considered whether the objectives of a potential plaintiff would be better served by seeking to liquidate the company in the jurisdiction of incorporation, as this can provide more powerful and appropriate tools to prevent and reverse any wrongdoing.
This article originally appeared on Westlaw Today.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide on the subject. Specialist advice should be sought regarding your particular situation.